In the current automotive landscape, true environmental halo cars don’t exist. The Ferrari La Ferrari employs electric motors, but make no mistake — it’s not a really a fuel saver. Hell, it’s a Ferrari, which would make that measure almost blasphemous. The Porsche 918 is a mite closer, but still no bullseye. Volkswagen, however, has produced their own version of a hippie halo car. It’s no V12 powerhouse, nor does it even come close to resembling anything supercar-ish in appearance. It’s reminiscent of the original Honda Insight with its nerdy wheel covers, and it borrows more design cues from a bar of soap than it does from any car that boasts a price tag north of $100k. But what the VW XL1 definitely does is make a bold statement — saying to the world that an ultra-efficient, super-small displacement hybrid can showcase some of the best automotive technology and materials available today and be class-leading, brilliantly simple and pretty damned expensive (its estimated cost is over $130,000). Our recent trip to VW HQ in Wolfsburg, Germany gave us a prime opportunity to evaluate the XL1 from all angles, including the view from behind the wheel.
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Upon first glance, it’s easy to see why the public has responded so well to VW’s creation. Despite its anti-performance leanings, it is an aesthetically appealing car. The rounded and rather simple front end looks not unlike a robotized version of the Michelin Man’s head — not exactly sexy, but certainly both high-tech and friendly.
The XL1’s butterfly doors are actually purpose-driven: the low-slung car has deep door sills that must be stepped over to enter the somewhat snug cabin. The wide-opening doors are easy to operate and enable passengers to find their seats quite easily. One might expect the interior of the XL1 to look like a hastily assembled cabin from a concept car, packed full of the best hemp and bamboo VW has to offer. Not so. The matte carbon fiber dash is attractive, the thin but comfy seats border on classic, and the small-diameter flat-bottom steering wheel wouldn’t look out of place on a wickedly fast track car. Overall, the interior digs are marvelously stealthy.
The Volkswagen 1-Liter
In 2002, the 1-Liter prototype was driven from Wolfsburg to the VW Annual Meeting in Hamburg by none other than the Chairman of the Board of Management, Dr. Ferdinand Piëch. It achieved a mind-blowing consumption of 1 liter of fuel per 100 kilometers but also managed to handle much like an ultra-efficient sports car. The body was made completely of carbon fiber composites and left unpainted to keep the weight down. VW also made the body out of magnesium; the crankcase and cylinder head of the 0.3-liter engine were made with an aluminium monobloc construction.
A track car this surely is not. The XL1 is driven by a 27 hp electric motor (powered by a 230V, 5.5kWh Lithium-ion battery) mated to an ultra-thrifty 0.8-liter aluminum block turbocharged direct-inject engine. Yet it’s not just the power trains and the slippery shape that make it the new monarch of ultra-high-efficiency vehicles. VW threw everything at it to see what stuck — super skinny run-flat tires to decrease both rolling and wind resistance, light magnesium wheels, a juice-box-sized 2-gallon gas tank and a completely enclosed floor to keep airflow underneath uninterrupted. The result is a mind-boggling 268 MPG, a top speed of 94 MPH and a 300-mile range. Essentially, it makes every other hybrid car out there look like a joke. VW is laughing the hardest.
Yet to say that VW has similar ambitions for the XL1 that Tesla does for its Model S or Toyota with its stratospherically volumed Prius family is ludicrous. Volkswagen has built 50 XL1s with tentative plans to build an additional 200-250 cars for public consumption; this is more about proving something than commercializing. The “dare” started in 2002 with the wonderfully quirky Volkswagen 1-liter car, a vehicle that looked something like a stubby but slick art-deco Batmobile combined with an electric pencil sharpener. At that time, it was considered the world’s most efficient car (238 mpg, 75 mph top speed and a nutty 0.159 drag coefficient), and that’s exactly what VW engineers had been aiming for. The 1-Liter was followed by the L1 concept car, executed largely as a study into what a high-end hybrid for the market could look like. VW has combined both notions over the past eleven years, and the capstone on this ambitious adventure is the XL1.
Everything about the XL1 is purpose driven for fuel economy. The body and monocoque are both constructed from CFRP (Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic), resulting in an impressive 50% reduction in weight compared to steel and 20% compared to aluminum. What’s more, many of the interior surfaces of the XL1 are actually exposed CFRP, lessening the need for additional cabin materials. The entire monocoque weighs in at a mere 197 pounds (just slightly less than this author). Other vehicular dieting includes CRFP anti-roll bars, single-shell CFRP seats for both driver and passenger, polycarbonate side windows and a lightweight electrical system — all well executed. As a result, the XL1 weighs in at 1,753 pounds — 1,283 less than a current-generation Toyota Prius.
The XL1 makes every other hybrid car out there look like a joke. VW is laughing the hardest.
But lest you think it’s just about weight reduction, VW spent just as much R&D on the XL1’s slippery shape. The teardrop body keeps the frontal area low and the cabin itself narrow, offsetting the passenger seat further back and allowing the body to taper. Instead of standard side mirrors, the XL1 utilizes an e-Mirror system with small cameras just aft of the front wheels. Outside of the absence of a full rear image, this system is easy to get used to with its very clear interior door-mounted monitors. Fully covered rear wheels and air intake louvers that close also contribute to the XL1’s ridiculous drag coefficient of 0.19 (beating the Mercedes-Benz CLA’s 0.23).
Even with all the engine efficiencies and weight- and drag-reducing technology, at the end of the day, what we care about is how it drives. We’ve experienced our fair share of anemic driving experiences in environmentally conscious cars, but the XL1 doesn’t get lumped into that field. The layout of the cabin and the seating position actually connect the driver with the car, and the lack of steering assist prevents that “floaty” handling experience that’s never fun unless you’re piloting a vintage Cadillac Eldorado. The XL1 is so low to the ground that the driving experience is far different from most cars, hybrid or not. When the diesel engine kicks in, you feel more connected with what the car is doing than you’d expect from such an efficient vehicle. At highway speeds on slight declines the car coasts effortlessly, laying bare what low drag and low rolling resistance can do; it’s fun imagining what fuel-efficiency heights it could reach with a tractor trailer in front of it and a strong tailwind. It’s not anywhere in the ballpark of quick, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to drive.
For the entirety of our time with the this segment-leading feat of engineering we were comfortable and intrigued. What VW has sought to achieve, both inside and out, with an emphasis on high-grade materials and engineering for the purpose of uber-efficiency, results in a car like no other. Those things that normally demand our attention — performance, speed and power — are utterly absent, yet the lack of these pulse-quickening aspects doesn’t detract from the XL1’s fascination factor. Volkswagen has taken fuel economy to the stratosphere, and they’ve brought the fuel-efficient vehicle with it.